When Garry Crothers (64) of Lough Swilly YC brought his Ovni 435 Kind of Blue into her berth in Foyle Marina in the heart of the City of Derry this (Saturday) afternoon at 1520 hrs, it marked the completion of an extraordinary adventure which had started as the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown fell suddenly into place in the Caribbean island of Sint Maarten in early May.
He is one-armed as the consequence of a motorbike accident in 2007, and though he had managed short single-handed passages, he was reliant on crew flying into the shared Dutch/French island to help him sail home the 3,500 miles to Ireland. The rapid spread of the pandemic to central America and the Pacific islands beyond had completely closed off his long-distance cruising plans there, and with the Lockdown in the Caribbean being imposed with increasing severity and indefinite length, his only options were either to sail the boat home with a crew, or to lay up with the limited facilities in Sint Maarten, and fly home himself.
But events moved so quickly that although the Transatlantic crew of his friend Ken Curry and his daughter Amy – with whom he’d made the east-west crossing in 2018 – had their flights booked, those flights were cancelled, while any fly-home options he personally might have immediately disappeared as well. It became increasingly likely that Garry – in a special at-risk category himself if the disease spread in its most vigorous form into the island – might spend months in total isolation on the boat in Sint Maarten.
The only way out was to sail for home alone, and he departed on June 1st for a difficult and often frustrating crossing. The Atlantic winds have been in a truculent mood, and it was only when he’d got to the northwest of the Azores that he made significantly good progress in winds from the westerly arc.
In this vid below, Garry demonstrates his one-armed skills for the Bangor RNLI bowline-tying competition - he found the time to do this while coming to grips with the totality of his predicament in the Caribbean.
Even then, the wind conditions were frequently unstable, which would have been a challenge for any able-bodied solo sailor, but for someone with one arm it was diabolical at times. Yet despite that, he retained his sense of humour, and his dogged progress towards northwest Ireland has been a source of inspiration and admiration for many, and a very absorbing distraction from the petty problems of Lockdown at home.
Yet he remained largely unaware of this, and when he was given a friendly and informed greeting by an Irish naval patrol vessel off the coast of Connacht on Wednesday, not only was he delighted to hear another human voice for the first time in 30 days, but he was astonished that everyone on board seemed to know all about him.
The level of welcome escalated as he progressed around the coast and into more familiar waters, taking the passage through Tory Sound while exchanging text messages with Alex Blackwell of the Ocean Cruising Club, who has been monitoring from his base in Clew Bay the progress of the OCC’s Atlantic fleet as the vessels displaced from the Caribbean head for the US, Canadian and European ports.
Off Lough Swilly yesterday (Friday) evening, a welcoming crew of his fellow Lough Swilly YC members came out in a big RIB (appropriately-named Slainte) from their base at Fahan, and provided him with a welcome-home hamper of Guinness, fresh wheaten bread, Kerrygold butter, Tayto crisps, fresh fruit and a bottle of whiskey. But tempting and all as it was to turn to starboard and head up Lough Swilly, Kind of Blue was committed to heading on round Malin Head and past Inishtrahull through the night to make her number this morning off Greencastle at the entrance to Lough Foyle where Foyle Sailability – with which Garry is much involved – have their sea base.
From there he had to complete the voyage with an accompanying flotilla for the passage today up the home waters of Lough Foyle, and now finally Kind of Blue is in port, the welcome is heartfelt, the remarkable Crothers family are united again, and Garry Crothers is very deservedly our “Sailor of the Month (Offshore)” for June